I want to talk about grocery shopping, for our lovely autistic family.

So many autistic people avoid going into shopping malls and big stores. But, why?

The photo in this post gives a clue. This is how a large grocery store looks to me. It’s an individual thing, as an autistic shopper. Others may have different visual effects, or be more badly affected by other sensory factors. It’s blindingly bright, overwhelming.

The floor pattern is confusing and disorientating.

Around me, the noise. Absolutely deafening. Trolleys clanking. Announcements, music, random adverts.

Endless people chattering, which I can hear all at once.

Also around me, smells. Overwhelming. Every fresh food item. Bakery. Shoppers and perfumes. Cleaning products, etc.

Also around me, choices. Endless choices. Each with different labels, different pricing for different quantities perhaps. Some at floor level, which as a disabled autistic shopper hurts to reach down for. Some at a high level, reaching up towards blinding flickering lighting.

If I can manage to get the items I want, I have to figure out how to pay for them.

Self service? Checkout? Do I risk the beeping and flashing of the self-serving machinery, trying to co-ordinate my own scanning? Or do I risk the conversations and queues, the random socialising that adds extra exhaustion to my already overloaded brain?

If I have not paced this correctly, including avoiding enough sensory hazards, my brain is now out of ways to handle the situation. It has taken in so much sensory and social information that it is gridlocked.

(Our son Chris Memmott explains this in his “roundabout hypothesis,” which is included in Monotropism theory pages.)

My brain is in danger of having a brain event from overload. It needs a quiet space, fast. But there are usually none in big stores. If I don’t get to one, I could either shut down (meaning I can’t easily move or speak—a terrifying and overwhelming feeling), or I may leave in a hurry without my shopping items, risking the attention of security guards and yet more conversation in this busy, noisy place. Some autistic people may enter a brain event known as “meltdown,” where they may act randomly, shout, run, etc. Again this is awful to experience, and entirely out of their control.

So, I have to think fast about coping mechanisms.

If already in sensory and social overload, can I use repetitive movement or sound (“stimming”)? That can really help me regulate for a while until I can get to a quiet place.

What about counting things? That can really help for a while. For some, lining things up can be a focus that helps them get through the pain and overwhelm. These may look like meaningless behaviors to others, but they are an autistic need and have a very definite purpose for us.

In situations of overwhelm, I might also lose my “voice tone,” so even if I can manage to speak, I might sound angry, when that is not how I feel. Or I might sound over-precise and pedantic. People generally don’t help adults who sound cross or pedantic.

Many autistic people also have physical disabilities such as hypermobility, or pain conditions etc, that mean the physical effort of shopping can be exhausting. I might drop things or otherwise become very clumsy, adding to the awfulness of the situation I’m now in.

So, how to avoid all of this?

Where possible, we shop online, or get others to shop for us. This can be more expensive, which is so difficult for autistic families where money is usually limited. It also risks people delivering the wrong items. Things we cannot eat because of sensory difficulties or physical difficulties with eating and chewing well. Things that can trigger digestive problems that many autistic people also have.

So, having shopping delivered is not a risk-free situation.

If I absolutely must go into a shopping mall or large grocery store, all the time I’m thinking about sensory/social overload.

When’s a quiet bit of the day?

Do I have my noise cancelling headphones or earplugs to hand?

Do I have sunglasses to hand if I need them?

Am I wearing comfortable clothing and shoes, so I’m minimising sensory pain?

Perhaps I’ll take a safe and familiar person with me to lend some assistance in ways that work for me.

Some autistic people have assistance dogs who are a great help in stores, guiding us to particular sections, or acting as a calming influence if we are reaching sensory overwhelm.

There is also another peril for a big number of autistic people: Many of us are faceblind. We can’t see faces with accuracy, so may not recognise those around us. Especially in sensory overwhelming spaces. I’ve lived in my home town for decades. I recognise almost no-one in shops. But if I go in with a non-autistic friend, who has also lived here for decades, they recognise person after person.

People I know may think I’m just rude and ignoring them. I’m really not. I don’t know who they are, just by looking at their faces. I have to guess from other clues, perhaps height, build, hair color, the way they walk or speak.

What do some malls and large stores offer to autistic people?

Some offer us…wait for it… one hour a week. An hour in which they switch off store music and announcements, and maybe switch down the lighting a little.

It’s a strange thing, because people with some other disabilities get accommodations all the time.

Well, some accommodations. It would be strange to offer, for example, Deaf people a hearing loop that only operates for an hour on a Thursday morning.

We’re supposed to be Very Grateful for our one hour a week.

What if we work, and cannot do that hour?

What if that hour isn’t enough time for us to shop?

What if we are caring for others, and cannot fit those caring responsibilities around that hour?

What if the hour is a very early time or late time, when we may be least able to handle the day?

How grateful should we be?

Autistic people are paying customers, and keen to spend our money with stores. But the stores have to help us more than this. Get in contact with local groups of autistic people and get some ideas from them.

What would actually help most? Find out. It might be longer and better “low sensory” shopping times each week. It will certainly include good staff training; so many parents of autistic children and young people get told their autistic child or young person is having a “tantrum” and needs to behave better. There is little understanding of the autistic child or adult’s extreme distress, pain and overwhelm caused by the store itself. Parents and carers get blamed, shamed, stared at and pointed at in stores. Some are given deeply unhelpful parenting advice by store employees. It’s so important to care, to understand what’s happening—and plan carefully with autistic people and their loved ones.

It can really help if those around us already know an escape plan. Lower all the input: Quiet voice, gentle direction, no eye contact.

A calm word to onlookers giving “helpful” advice can also be appreciated. Crowds staring at us are never helpful things.

I choose to carry an autism alert card that can give useful hints to people. I appreciate that in some places and cultures, that’s not a safe or well understood option, however.

In some areas, a lapel badge, wrist band, or neck lanyard can be used to signal that a person may value support or understanding. It’s worthwhile stores and malls investigating this kind of scheme to find out if local disabled and neurodivergent people would make use of it.

Shopping can be fun. It’s also so important. But making it a success? That’s about good information, good planning, trust, supportive relationships between staff and customers, and about mutual respect.

Autistic individuals are not “being naughty” in shops. They are in hellish nightmarish conditions, and doing their very best.

Let’s make shopping something we all can do, eh?

Thank you for reading.

Hypersaturated photograph of a grocery store aisle
Hypersaturated photograph of a grocery store aisle